Legal alcohol sales spread in Kentucky as economy, laws and attitudes change

State alcohol regulators prepared a new map a couple of months ago showing Kentucky’s jumble of legally dry, wet and partially wet cities and counties, but it’s already out of date.

Just last Tuesday, voters approved legal alcohol sales in long-dry Cumberland and Metcalfe counties, while Williamsburg and Mayfield residents voted for expanded sales.

That continued a trend that has seen the state go increasingly wet.

A number of factors account for that, observers said, including economic concerns, changes in state law, a greater acceptance of alcohol — even among members of churches that once strongly fought legal liquor — and hopes of keeping pace with nearby wet cities and counties.

“It’s sort of the domino effect,” said Don Cole, an ordained Baptist minister who heads the Kentucky League on Alcohol & Gambling Problems. “All the counties are scratching for money.”

Since January 2014, voters have approved new or expanded alcohol sales in 23 cities or counties, and turned them down in only six cases, according to records from the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

23 The number of cities or counties that have approved new or expanded alcohol sales since January 2014. Voters turned them down in only six cases.

Those votes dealt either with authorizing the full range of legal sales, including package stores and bars, or sales of alcohol by the drink at restaurants.

Add in votes during that time on alcohol sales in precincts and at venues such as golf courses, wineries and state parks, and the wets have won 42 times. Opponents turned back legal sales in just nine elections.

It wasn’t always that way.

Opposition to alcohol by conservative, teetotaling Protestant churches kept much of the state legally — if not effectively — dry for decades after Prohibition ended nationwide in the early 1930s.

That legacy persisted into the 1980s and 1990s, when citywide or countywide votes on legalizing alcohol failed nearly twice as often as they succeeded, state ABC records show.

The trend started the other direction after 2000, when state legislators changed the law to allow votes on legalizing the sale of alcohol by the drink at larger restaurants, as well as golf courses and wineries.

Before that, voters had to decide whether to legalize all alcohol sales. That was a hard sell many places because of church opposition and concerns about major changes in rural communities and quiet small towns.

The new law made alcohol sales more palatable. People could vote for a beer with dinner without swallowing sales of cases.

By late 2004, there had been 37 restaurant votes and residents approved sales in 19, spreading legal alcohol to more places than throughout the 1980s and 1990s, state records show.

Restaurant sales also have paved the way for some places to ultimately go fully wet.

Residents in London and Corbin, for instance, first approved restaurant sales before voting several years later to allow all sales.

Opinions change in Williamsburg

Alcohol votes in Williamsburg give an indication of how the issue has evolved.

Voters crushed proposals to make the city fully wet in 1973 and again in 1976, then turned down restaurant sales in 2006, according to state records.

But after nearby towns approved alcohol sales, Williamsburg voters approved liquor by the drink at restaurants in 2012 by a margin of less than 2 percent, then voted nearly 2 to 1 last week for the city to go fully wet.

Carol Beth Martin, malt beverage administrator for the state, said she thinks that as places go wet it serves as an example for others.

“In my opinion, as places nearby go wet, people are able to see that, if regulated appropriately, alcohol sales can be a benefit for a community as opposed to a nuisance,” Martin said. “Alcohol sales oftentimes bring increased economic development to the community as well as provide an increase in tax revenue addressing quality of life issues in their community.”

In my opinion, as places nearby go wet, people are able to see that, if regulated appropriately, alcohol sales can be a benefit for a community as opposed to a nuisance.

Carol Beth Martin, malt beverage administrator for Kentucky

In the years since the restaurant-alcohol law was passed, state lawmakers have lowered the minimum number of seats needed for a restaurant to qualify for sales and added more places, such as qualified historic sites, where voters can approve sales.

In another change this year, legislators dropped the requirement for a city to have a minimum population of 3,000 in order to hold a wet-dry vote.

Regulators anticipate more towns will have elections as a result, Martin said.

“We also anticipate that as some of the smaller cities go wet that the larger cities and counties nearby will also consider holding elections,” she said.

Economic concerns win

For decades, the debate over alcohol in Kentucky has pitted those who believe legal sales will boost jobs, tourism and tax revenue for local governments against opponents concerned that selling booze in more places will mean more drunken driving, alcohol abuse and other problems, or who have a moral objection.

All those arguments played out in the votes last week, but supporters said economic concerns won out.

Doug Williams, a nurse practitioner who helped campaign for legal alcohol sales in Cumberland County, said he and others were looking for a way to boost the lackluster local economy.

The county is losing population, and U.S. Census data shows one measure of personal income in 2014 was only 40 percent of the national level. The county’s employment change in 2013-2014 was a negative 8.8 percent, according to census figures.

Thousands of tourists pass through the county because of Dale Hollow Lake and the Cumberland River, but don’t spend their money in Burkesville, Williams said.

Supporters argued that having legal alcohol sales would allow businesses to catch tourist dollars and hire people.

We did it for economic reasons, for sure. Out town’s drying up, basically. This was a first step in trying to get things turned around.

Doug Williams, a nurse practitioner who helped campaign for legal alcohol sales in Cumberland County

Voters approved going wet by a vote of 1,441 to 1,069.

“We did it for economic reasons, for sure. Out town’s drying up, basically,” Williams said. “This was a first step in trying to get things turned around.”

Cumberland County Clerk Kim King said voters had rejected alcohol sales in the county in 2000 by a margin of more than 2 to 1.

“That’s how much things have changed in 16 years,” she said.

In Metcalfe County, college students Hannah Morrison, Kristin Compton and Lane Thompson spearheaded the effort to legalize alcohol sales.

Morrison, who is majoring in business administration at Lindsey Wilson College, said there are few jobs available in her hometown. Her emphasis is on human resources, but she doesn’t anticipate being able to find a job in the county in her field after college.

“We graduate high school and go to college and we don’t come back here,” Morrison said of young adults. “We’re concerned.”

Morrison said alcohol sales that have expanded in nearby cities and counties was a factor.

“We did not want to be the ones left behind,” she said.

Voters approved full alcohol sales 1,839 to 1,658.

Eddie Reece, a factory worker who said his brother was killed by a drunken driver, set up a Facebook page to oppose going wet in Metcalfe County.

Reece said one of his concerns is about young people getting easier access to alcohol.

“If it’s right here, every 16, 17-year-old has a 21-year-old friend” who can buy it for the minors, Reece said.

Ken Sims, a professor at the University of the Cumberlands who opposed expanded alcohol sales in Williamsburg, said underage drinking was among his concerns as well.

He set up a web page with statistics on the number of college students who die annually from alcohol-related injuries — more than 1,800 nationally — as well as numbers on other alcohol deaths.

“I’m all for economic development. I just don’t think that’s the way to do it,” Sims said of making alcohol more widely available. “I think it’s going to be a nightmare to keep underage kids from drinking.”

Drunken-driving arrests down

Supporters argue having legal alcohol creates rules and revenue for better control by authorities.

Police said the number of drunken-driving arrests fluctuates based on factors such as police staffing and funding for targeted enforcement.

Arrests by Somerset police for drunken driving went up significantly in 2013, the year after the city went wet, but then dropped the next year, according to figures provided by Capt. Shannon Smith.

Arrests for drunken driving both years were well below the number in 2009, years before the city went wet.

Statewide, drunken-driving arrests have gone down even as legal alcohol sales have spread, according to figures compiled by the Kentucky State Police.

The agency’s annual Crime in Kentucky reports listed 45,221 drunken-driving arrests in 2000. That went down to 26,050 in 2012, 24,160 in 2013 and 22,553 in 2014.

People are changing. Their values aren’t as high.

Whitley County Clerk Kay Schwartz.

The debate over alcohol retains a moral component for some people in Kentucky, who see the spread of alcohol as evidence of the creeping decay of society.

“People are changing. Their values aren’t as high,” said Whitley County Clerk Kay Schwartz.

For many people, however, the issue is not one of morality but of economics and public safety.

There are differing opinions even among Protestant churchgoers, with many arguing drinking is wrong but others believing the Bible teaches against excessive drinking, not alcohol itself.

Cole, president of the Kentucky League on Alcohol & Gambling Problems (also known as the Kentucky Ethics League), espouses total abstinence, but said alcohol is not viewed as evil in the way it was in earlier generations — even by some church members — because of the influence of popular culture and other factors.

People opposed to new or expanded alcohol sales in the elections last week said it didn’t seem that churches worked as hard against the measures as in some prior votes.

“They just don’t see it as a battle worth fighting,” Cole said. “They’ve got too many other things that they see as more important than this, and some are social drinkers.”